Thomas Jefferson & American Education
by JC Bowman –
The lives of our citizens are enriched through public policies that enhance economic opportunity and freedom. However, some policymakers lack basic understanding of sound economic principles, as well as the fundamental principles of our free enterprise system which include individual initiative, personal responsibility, limited government, respect for private property and the rule of law, economic freedom, and an educated citizenry –the same shared principles that inspired our Founding Fathers.
Most citizens have now started to fully understand that as government growth increases, liberty decreases. They agree it is a shared responsibility of all, stakeholders and policymakers alike, to ensure our tax dollars are wisely spent. In education we need to make sure tax dollars are utilized on programs that benefit students and those who teach them. An essential objective in public education is, and must be, an educated citizenry that creates an informed electorate.
Many have attributed to Thomas Jefferson the genesis of the belief that an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people. Whether Jefferson ought to be given credit is arguable. However, it is a worthy goal to have an educated citizenry to both secure the future of our democracy and for our citizens to be competitive globally.
To some extent, in education we have abandoned Jefferson’s advocacy that an “enlightened people and an energetic public opinion” should keep the “aristocratic spirit of the government” under control. Jefferson feared the power of the federal government. Government is not the driving force for excellence. The motivation that drives excellence comes from within the individual. Jefferson understood that in order for citizens to lead in the future they must have virtues and talent. It should be by our achievements in life, not an accident of birth, that determine our future. Education is and was the great equalizer.
Jefferson, who is embraced on both the left and the right politically, certainly understood that it was essential that a suitable education be provided for all its citizens. In fact, Jefferson expressed to James Madison, as early as 1787, “Above all things I hope the education of the common people will be attended to, convinced that on their good sense we may rely with the most security for the preservation of a due degree of liberty.” Jefferson virtually echoed the conviction of Montesquieu in Spirit of the Laws, that “virtue may be defined as the love of the laws and of our country” as a principal business of education.
There is no dispute that Jefferson, as a Founding Father, understood the need of public education. He wrote, “a system of general instruction, which shall reach every description of our citizens from the richest to the poorest, as it was the earliest, so will it be the latest of all the public concerns in which I shall permit myself to take an interest.” As if peering into the future, Jefferson also wrote, “If the children are untaught, their ignorance and vices will in future life cost us much dearer in their consequences than it would have done in their correction by a good education.”
A current catchphrase in public education is “college and career ready.” In contrast, in 1814, Thomas Jefferson used a similar comparison, “the laboring and the learned.” He detailed to Peter Carr, “The mass of our citizens may be divided into two classes — the laboring and the learned. The laboring will need the first grade of education to qualify them for their pursuits and duties; the learned will need it as a foundation for further acquirements.” We really have not changed the identified groups; we just use different labels.
Understanding Jefferson’s view challenges the principle that a number of policymakers have embraced that education is merely about job readiness and employment (laboring class). Unmistakably, the imperative of being educated (the learned) is exceedingly indispensable in a knowledge-based economy and for dealing with an evolving interdependent, multipolar world.
In 1816, Jefferson sent a letter to Pierre Du Pont de Nemours in which he favored an idea he thought might secure education without compulsion. It was, according to Jefferson, a Spanish proposal that nobody “should ever acquire the rights of citizenship until he could read and write.” Jefferson said, “It is impossible sufficiently to estimate the wisdom of this provision.” However, Jefferson did not support making parents put their children in school, suggesting that “it is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible transportation and education of the infant against the will of the father.”
By every account, it is clear that Jefferson approved of a tax-supported, public educational system that would enable citizens to express their opinions and understand complex issues that can inform decisions the electorate must make as they cast their votes. In 1824, Jefferson added “a republican nation whose citizens are to be led by reason and persuasion and not by force, the art of reasoning becomes of first importance.”
How public education is to occur and the financial mechanism to leverage those tax dollars can be debated as they were in Jefferson’s day. However, we believe in public education, and when local school systems work in partnership with communities they serve, they can and will educate students successfully. Public education enables students to access opportunities in a rapidly changing, diverse, global society.
The evidence is clear that Jefferson was correct in the importance of public education for the future of democracy and the United States of America. Jefferson believed that “no other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom and happiness,” and that failing to provide public education would “leave the people in ignorance.” Our job is to make sure we build on that foundation.
JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Brentwood, Tennessee.